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Amnesty International finds "human rights abuses" in Ferguson, Missouri

A man holds his hands up as he's confronted with police in Ferguson.
A man holds his hands up as he's confronted with police in Ferguson.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

After Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, residents took to the streets to protest what many saw as yet another example of police mistreatment of black Americans. The situation quickly took a turn for the worse: law enforcement lined the streets in riot gear and toting military-grade equipment, threatening demonstrators and reporters with armored vehicles, sniper rifles, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other weapons normally seen in theaters of war.

A new Amnesty International report, released on October 24, outlined some of the most questionable aspects of the Brown shooting and ensuing protests, and it called on local and federal officials to reevaluate the policies that enabled many of the concerns. Although Ferguson and St. Louis County officials are free to completely ignore its contents, the report offers an opportunity to look back at the demonstrations and try to learn how such a chaotic situation can be prevented in the future. Here are three of the report's most significant findings.

1) Police around the country excessively use force

Michael Brown memorial

Weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown, a memorial remained at the location of his death. (Scott Olson / Getty Images News)

The Brown shooting, the Amnesty report claims, represents a much bigger problem around the country: police use force far too often, particularly against black Americans. But it's very difficult to gauge the depth of the problem, due to a poor process for reporting use of force.

"For years, the monitoring of police conduct and excessive use of force has been hampered by the failure of the Department of Justice to collect accurate, comprehensive national data on police use of force, including the numbers of people killed or injured through police shootings or other types of force," the report stated. "Because this data is not being consistently collated at a national level, no one currently knows how many people are shot and killed by police officers in the United States."

The data that is reported, however, makes a pretty compelling case that police are disproportionately likely to kill black Americans, particularly when the victim isn't attacking.

killed by police - circumstances

Many of these shootings might be legally justified. But Amnesty argues that could be the exact problem, at least in Missouri, because state law allows police to use force even when there isn't an imminent threat of harm. "Also troubling is Missouri's broad statute on the use of deadly force," the report stated. "Amnesty International is very concerned that the statute may be unconstitutional and is clearly out of line with international standards on the intentional use of lethal force as it goes well beyond the doctrine that lethal force only be used to protect life."

2) Police mistreated protesters

When protesters took to the streets of Ferguson to speak out against the Brown shooting, police responded with military-grade equipment that much of the public saw as excessive. Police donned riot gear, wielded sniper rifles, rode on armored vehicles that resembled tanks, fired rubber bullets, and launched tear gas — a chemical weapon banned from international warfare — into demonstrating crowds.

"The use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment to police largely peaceful demonstrations intimidates protesters who are practicing their right to peaceful assembly and can actually lead to an escalation in violence," the report stated. "Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict is inevitable rather than possible, escalating tensions between protesters and police."

Local police obtain much of this sort of gear from federal programs that either directly supply law enforcement with or provide funds for the equipment, which is meant for anti-drug and counter-terrorism operations. But after the weapons were used on largely peaceful protesters, the Obama administration ordered a review of the programs.

Beyond the heavy-handed tactics, law enforcement also imposed several restrictions on the protests that concerned Amnesty: "Law enforcement in Ferguson and the Missouri government employed several tactics of concern to Amnesty International, including the imposition of a curfew for the entire city of Ferguson which limited the rights of those demonstrating peacefully but also the freedom of movement of the general public and requirements for those protesters on West Florissant Avenue to 'keep walking' under threat of arrest, impeded protesters from exercising their right to freely assemble."

A federal court later deemed the "keep walking" restriction, which required protesters keep moving at all times, unconstitutional and ordered police to no longer enforce it.

3) Police tried to shut out media

police Ferguson

Law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests over the Michael Brown shooting. (Scott Olson / Getty Images News)

These police tactics extended to media covering the protests, as well. Journalists were arrested, burned by tear gas, hit by rubber bullets, and blasted by sound cannons. Reporters were also contained to a tight media area with the threat of arrest, leaving them unable to see most of the protests they were reporting on.

"From Aug. 13 through Oct. 2, at least 19 journalists and members of the media have been arrested by law enforcement with others subjected to tear gas and the use of rubber bullets," Amnesty found. "Reporters for CNN, Al Jazeera America, and other outlets report being harassed or physically threatened. Likewise, legal and human rights observers have also faced arrest for carrying out their roles."

As Vox's Max Fisher explained in August, this mistreatment of press, something often seen in "far-away conflict zones and authoritarian states," is a declaration to regular citizens of the total and complete control of law enforcement.

"That police in Ferguson are targeting journalists so openly and aggressively is an appalling affront to basic media freedoms, but it is far scarier for what it suggests about how the police treat everyone else — and should tell us much about why Ferguson's residents are so fed up," he wrote. "When police in Ferguson are willing to rough up and arbitrarily arrest a Washington Post reporter just for being in a McDonald's, you have to wonder how those police treat the local citizens, who don't have the shield of a press pass."

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